Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Early Development of Pelham Schools in the Late 18th and Early 19th Centuries

For years I have continued a quest to assemble research on the history of education in the Town of Pelham.  A small portion of that quest has involved research to identify the earliest schools in Pelham and to understand the context within which early Pelham schools developed.

Today's posting to the Historic Pelham Blog is an effort to summarize some of the current research on early efforts to educate the young people of Pelham.  Unlike most such postings, so as not to interrupt the flow, I have chosen to use "Endnotes" to document sources.

Undated Photograph of the One-Room Schoolhouse Built
in About 1838 in City Island on Land Now Thought To Be
the Current Playground of Public School 175 Located at
200 City Island Avenue, City Island, The Bronx, NY, 10464.

The Earliest Years of Schools in Pelham

The Duke of York’s Laws in the Province of New York included a decree implemented in 1665 that constitutes New York’s first compulsory education law.  It required that all children in New York receive instruction not only in “Matters of Religion and the Lawes of the Country,” but also in reading, writing, and arithmetic.”[i]  According to one authority on the subject, under the Duke of York’s decree: 

“The inhabitants were not obliged to send their children, and servants or apprentices to school, but they were required to ‘instruct or cause to be instructed’ all children in their care.  Instruction was given by parents, masters, older children, tutors, ministers and schoolmasters.” [ii]

There is no evidence that, during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the handful of residents of the Manor of Pelham did anything other than to instruct their youngsters in the home and, later, in "Sunday School" for religious instruction in churches such as St. Paul's Church of Eastchester and Trinity Church of New Rochelle.  

The earliest school yet identified by this author as built on any of the lands acquired by Thomas Pell in 1654 is a school erected on lands that Pell sold to the ten families who settled in Eastchester.  According to Bolton:

“The first school-house was erected in 1683, for at a public meeting of the inhabitants, held on the 15th of October of that year, it was ordered, ‘that a school-house be erected upon a site between the property of Richard Shute and William Haiden, and encouragement given to Mr. Morgan Jones to become the school-master.’

This building occupied the site of the present village school-house.  Thus the ground has been used for this purpose one hundred and sixty-four years.” [iii]

Although nearby communities began to develop schools during the eighteenth century, the Manor of Pelham remained in the hands of relatively few landowners who apparently saw no need for dedicated schools, continuing to teach their young people in the home or by sending them away to school.  After the Revolutionary War, however, on April 9, 1795, the State of New York undertook its first effort to create a system of common schools throughout the State.  It enacted “An Act for the Encouragement of Schools” which provided, in part:

“out of the annual revenue arising to this State from its stock and other funds, excepting so much thereof as shall be necessary for the support of government, the sum of twenty thousand pounds, shall be annually appropriated for the term of five years for the purpose of encouraging and maintaining schools in the several cities and towns in this State, in which the children of the inhabitants residing in this State shall be instructed in the English language or be taught English grammar, arithmetic, mathematics and such other branches of knowledge as are most useful and necessary to complete a good English education; which sum shall be distributed among the several counties”. [iv]

In April, 1795 when this statute was enacted, the Town Supervisor of the Town of Pelham was Philip Pell.  Philip Pell was among the members of the Board of Supervisors of the County who participated in the apportionment of State education funds under the statute to the various Towns of the County.  The extant records of the Town of Pelham begin in 1801, however.  Thus, no record of the apportionment of funds to the Town of Pelham in 1795 has yet been uncovered.  It seems rather likely, however, that some amount was apportioned to the Town of Pelham.  If so, this likely would have been the origin of public funding of public schools in Pelham.[v] 

It is clear, however, that by 1801 there was a school house in the Town of Pelham.  It is not known where that school house stood.  Given that the Town’s population at the time resided principally along the roadway known today as Shore Road, on Rodman’s Neck and nearby areas, and on City Island, it is possible that the school was near the shore on the mainland not far from City Island. 

Minutes of the Town Board of the Town of Pelham for the year 1801 reflect the following reference to “the school house in the town of Pelham”:

“At a town meeting held at the school house in the town of Pelham, on Tuesday the seventh day of April, 1801, for the purpose of electing town officers for the said town to serve the ensuing year, the following persons were appointed to the following offices and places . . .”[vi]

Additionally, the “Town Minute Book 1801 – 1851” for the Town of Pelham contains a list of the “Commissioners of Schools” for the Town of Pelham in 1801.  They were:  Philip Pell, John Bartow, Alexander Henderson, William Bayley, Esaie Guion, Rem Rapelyea [aka Rem Rapelje] , and John Williams.[vii]  

It is clear from the same records that at least as early as 1801 and apparently for each year thereafter until 1818, the annual town meeting during which town elections were held took place in a structure referred to as “the school house in the town of Pelham,” “the school house,” or “the schoolhouse in said Town.” [viii]

In short, it is likely that some arrangement for a public school in Pelham was made shortly after New York enacted a statute entitled "An Act for the Encouragement of Schools" on April 9, 1795.  It seems certain, however, that a school existed in Pelham at an as yet undetermined location as early as 1801 and during at least the first two decades of the 19th century.    

The Early “Common School” Years in Pelham

The records of the annual meetings of the Town of Pelham held from 1802 through 1813 reflect no elections for any “Commissioners of Schools.”  In 1814, however, the records reflect a significant change in the history of schools in Pelham.

The records of the annual meeting of the Town of Pelham for the year 1814 reflect that on April 5, 1814, town voters elected three men to serve as “Commissioners of Schools.”  They were Philip Pell, David J. Pell, and Augustine J. F. Prevost.[ix]  Voters, for the first time, also elected six men as “Inspectors of Schools.”  They were Augustine J. F. Prevost, David J. Pell, Caleb Pell, George Crawford, Nicholas Haight, and William Crawford.[x]  Most significantly, voters authorized the Town to raise a sum of money equal to the sum provided by the State of New York “for the support of common schools.”[xi]

The April 5, 1814 entry is significant.  As early as 1784 (four years before the Legislature created the Town of Pelham by statute), the Board of Regents and the Governor of New York began urging the Legislature to establish and fund a system of “common schools” throughout the State.  Finally, in 1795 (as noted above), New York enacted its law authorizing the expenditure of 20,000 pounds annually for five years to support schools with the state aid being augmented by a local tax.[xii]  Although the Legislature ended the program in 1800, it authorized use of funds from a statewide lottery to support the State’s “common schools.”[xiii]  Five years later the New York Legislature created a fund for support of the common schools and allocated to that fund “proceeds from state land sales and other assets.”[xiv] 

In 1812, New York enacted a landmark “common schools” law.  In 1814, New York amended the law to require local authorities to establish common school districts, a then-developing factor that seemed to prompt the votes at the annual town meeting of the Town of Pelham held on April 5, 1814.[xv]  As one authority on the subject has written:

“In 1812 a landmark law established a statewide system of common school districts and authorized distribution of interest from the Common School Fund.  Town and city officials were directed to lay out the districts holding school at least three months a year, according to population aged 5-15.  Revenue from the town/county property tax was used to match the state school aid.  While the 1812 act authorized local authorities to establish common school districts, an 1814 amendment required them to do so.  After 1814, if the cost of instruction exceeded the total of state aid plus local tax, as it generally did, the difference was made up by charing tuition, or ‘rates,’ itemized on ‘rate bills.’ . . . The typical district had a one- or two-room schoolhouse where children learned reading, writing, spelling, arithmetic, and geography.  The 1812 common school act shaped the future of public education in New York by establishing that 1) common schools are a state function under state control; 2) funding of public schools is a joint state-local responsibility; 3) the school district – not the county or the town – is the primary administrative unit for public education.”[xvi]

There seems to have been some form of technical irregularity in the election of the Commissioners of Schools and the Inspectors of Schools during the annual town meeting held on April 5, 1814.  Town records reflect that a special town meeting was held “at the Schoolhouse in the Town of Pelham” on June 18, 1814.  Minutes of the special meeting state:

“At a special Town Meeting held at the Schoolhouse in the Town of Pelham in the County of Westchester on Saturday the 18th day of June 1814 for the purpose of electing two Commissioners and six Inspectors of Common Schools to serve the ensuing year They being choose [sic] the last annual Town Meeting but are not qualified therefore [sic] the law directs that they may be reelected by special Town Meeting when the following persons were elected to the following Ofices [sic] and places Viz: 

James Harvey
}  Commissioners of Common Schools
Joshua Huestis

Augustine J. F. Prevost
David J. Pell
Caleb Pell
                                          }  Inspectors of Schools
Nicholas Haight
William Crawford junr.
George Crawford

                                          David J. Pell, T. Clk.”[xvii]

It seems safe from the foregoing to infer that by 1814, the Town of Pelham had at least one school funded in part by the State and in part by the Town that operated at least three months a year.  It seems likely that the school was on the mainland because, as will be seen shortly, there are indications that City Island began educating children on the island during the 1830’s.

By 1821, there were only 65 school age children in the entire Town of Pelham.  According to a report filed by the Commissioners of Common Schools for the Town of Pelham with the State Superintendent of Common Schools in September, 1821, Pelham had a single school district with a single school overseen by a single instructor with an annual budget of $50.  The County of Westchester provided $15 toward the budget; the Town of Pelham raised the remaining $35 through Town taxes.  Thirty-five children attended the school for four months and twenty-one days during the year with plans that year not to operate the school during the winter season.  The textbooks used by the students were "Pickets’ American School Class Books."  Albert Picket (1771-1850) was the principal author of this series of textbooks first published in the early 19th century with many subsequent editions that included works on spelling, reading, grammar, geography, and writing.[xviii]   

City Island Begins Schooling Its Children on the Island

By the 1830s, it would appear that Pelham residents who lived on City Island were beginning to agitate for arrangements to teach their school age children on the island.  (This, of course, further supports the earlier inference that Pelham's only school house in the early 19th century likely was located on the mainland, though likely near City Island.) 

Three of the earliest efforts to educate the young people of City Island were: (1) a teacher named Rachel S. Fordham who conducted classes in her home during some unspecified time in the 1830s; (2) the opening of the first City Island public school (a one-room schoolhouse) on June 3, 1839; and (3) the construction of a newer and larger school house on property purchased in 1860 at the corner of Orchard Street and Main Street (now City Island Avenue).

I have written extensively of the development of early schools on City Island and will not repeat that account here.  For details, see:  Mon., Apr. 07, 2014:  History of A Few of the Earliest Public Schools in the Town of Pelham.  


[i]  See Seybolt, Robert Francis, The Act of 1795 for the Encouragement of Schools and the Practice in Westchester County, p. 3 (Albany, NY:  The University of the State of New York, 1919). 
[ii]  Id., pp. 3-4.
[iii]  Bolton, Robert, History of the Several Towns, Manors, and Patents of the County of Westchester, From Its First Settlement to the Present Time, Carefully Revised by Its Author, Vol. II, p. 214 (NY, NY:  Chas. F. Roper, 1881) (Edited by Cornelius Winter Bolton).  Cf.  Barr, Lockwood Anderson, A Brief, But Most Complete & True Account of the Settlement of the Ancient Town of Pelham Westchester County, State of new York Known One Time Well & Favourably as the Lordshipp & Manour of Pelham Also The Story of the Three Modern Villages Called The Pelhams, p. 149 (Richmond, VA:  The Dietz Press, Inc. 1946) (“THE first mention of a school in that section of Westchester County, in the tract owned by Thomas Pell, is found under the date of August 13, 1683. This school was located in the tract which he sold to the "Ten Families," not far from Old St. Paul's Church in Eastchester. The school was under the jurisdiction of the Rector of the Congregation, according to Bolton's History of Westchester, Vol. II, p. 100.  [sic]”; hereinafter “Barr”).
[iv]  Laws of the State of New York, 1789-1796, Vol. 3, pp. 626-31 (Albany, NY:  1881) (amended Apr. 6, 1796, as reflected in id., p. 702). 
[v]  The establishment of a school in Pelham at about this time seems all the more likely when the records of nearby localities are reviewed.  There seems to have been a rush to establish schools in the region around Pelham following passage of the new statute in 1795.  See, e.g., Seybolt, Robert Francis, The Act of 1795 for the Encouragement of Schools and the Practice in Westchester County, p. 13 et al. (Albany, NY:  The University of the State of New York, 1919) (reflecting establishment of a school near Delanceys Bridge in the Town of Westchester, another school in the upper part of the Town of Westchester near the Widow Bartow’s property, another school on Throggs Neck, and another school near the property of Cornelius Leggett in the Village of West Farms).
[vi]  Town Minute Book 1801 – 1851, Town of Pelham, New York State American Revolution Bicentennial Commission Historical Records Microfilm Program, Microfilm p. 1 (microfilm held in collections of New York State Archives) (hereinafter “Pelham Town Minute Book 1801 – 1851”). 
[vii]  Id. 
[viii]  E.g., id., p. 5 (1802); p. 6 (1803), p. 8 (1804), p. 12 (1806), p. 17 (1807),  p. 19 (1808), p. 21 (1809), p. 23 (1810), p. 24 (1811), p. 26 (1811 – special meeting), p. 28 (1812); p. 30 (1813); p. 32 (1814); p. 35 (1815), p. 38 (1816); p. 40 (1817).  The annual meeting began to be held in the “house of George Berrian, an innkeeper” beginning in 1818.  See, e.g., id., pp. 42 (1818); 46 (1819); 48 (1820); 51 (1821); 57 (1822).  Annual town meetings then began to be held in the “house of William A. Berrian” [perhaps the same location] beginning in 1823.  See, id., pp. 59 (1823); 61 (1824); 62 (1825);
[ix]  Id., pp. 32-33.  These same three men were re-elected “Commissioners of Schools” in 1815.  Id., p. 35. 
[x]  Id., pp. 32-33.  These same six men were re-elected “Inspectors of Schools” in 1815.  Id., p. 35. 
[xi]  Id., p. 34 (“Voted at this meeting that there be a sum equal to the sum of money given by the State raised in the Town for the support of Common Schools.”). 
[xii]  Folts, James D., History of the University of the State of New York and the State Education Department 1784-1996 (electronic version of history originally published in paper format in Jun. 1996 by the New York State Education Department), visited Sep. 21, 2014   (hereinafter, “Folts”). 
[xiii]  Id. 
[xiv]  Id. 
[xv]  At the time, a “common school” in New York was an elementary school (kindergarten through eighth grade) and a “common school district” was a school district authorized to operate elementary schools but not high schools.  In 1853 the Legislature authorized the creation of “union free school districts.”  Such districts typically were the union of two or more “common school districts” (i.e., school districts that were not authorized to operate high schools) to create a new school district “free” from the restrictions that barred common school districts from operating high schools. 
[xvi]  Id. 
[xvii]  Pelham Town Minute Book 1801 – 1851, p. 37.  The same town records continue to show the annual election of “Commissioners of Common Schools” and “Inspectors of Common Schools” in each of the following years:  1816 (p. 37); 1817 (p. 41); 1818 (pp. 43 & 45); 1819 (pp. 46 & 47); 1820 (p. 49); 1821 (p. 51); 1822 (pp. 54 & 56); 1823 (p. 59); 1824 (p. 60); 1825 (p.
[xviii]  Town Minute Book 1801 – 1851, Town of Pelham, New York State American Revolution Bicentennial Commission Historical Records Microfilm Program, Microfilm, Entry for Sept. “th,” 1821 (microfilm held in collections of New York State Archives). 

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At 7:29 PM, Blogger Dick Forliano said...

The first schools in the present town of Eastchester was built in 1797 at the intersection of present day of Wilmot Road and Route 22. A gas station is there today.

But the first school house in historic Eastchester (most likely in present day Mount Vernon) was built in 1726. The first school master was hired in 1683. Article 14 of the Eastchester Covenant (1666) states “that provision be made for the education of children.”

Great article. The development of public education in Westchester and New York State is a fascinating topic.

Today I was just talking to a class of 7th grade students on City Island. I was dressed in colonial costume and gave the students a living history perspective through the Fowler family of Eastchester. My granddaughter was in the class. They asked when the first school was built on the island. They also asked about why City Island was called Minneford Island. I did not know the answer.

It is interesting that before the American Revolution children could attend school in old colonial Eastchester. Could there have been some connection between literacy and the support for the Patriot cause?

Rich Forliano, Eastchester Town Historian


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